Saturday, August 30, 2014
Something strange happens to me whenever I see the Greek flag, especially the variant without the stripes which has been the flag of that country for most of its existence and which now is taken to be the flag of the people, rather than the nation. I become suffused with a warm glow, my cheeks redden and the hairs of my arms stand on end. All at once, my brain becomes flooded with a myriad of thoughts, images and inherited memories. This flag, is the flag of my ancestors. It is a tangible manifestation of a faith in something higher than the paltry needs of daily existence that unites all of us. It is a symbol of the survival of the Greek people through centuries of persecution, degradation and even genocide, at the hands of a conqueror who treated them as second class citizens by virtue of their religion. As such, it is a reminder that no matter how desperate times can be, there is always hope of rebirth and justice. It is a manifesto of democracy and equality, kindness and compassion; ideals that are inextricably interwoven within the warp and the weft of the modern Greek identity. This is not the flag of a nation, but rather of a way of life and of a free people who take the values of fairness and liberty with them wherever they go.
When the flag of the Greek people flies, as it did on the 25th of March in Federation Square this year, I notice how the blue and white cross already exists within the Union Jack of the Australian flag, and marvel at how symbolic this is of the manner in which the aforementioned Greek ideals also exist within and form the foundation of the core values of Australia.
I am reminded of the times when Greeks and Australians fought or struggled together side by side, each under their own flags or eachothers, such as during the Gallipoli campaign, when Greeks nursed Australian soldiers on Lemnos, while 15,000 of their compatriots were ethnically cleansed from Gallipoli in order to make the area secure from attack by the Allies, or during the Second World War, when doughty Greek villagers, with limited or no knowledge of Australia, risked their lives to protect and harbor Australian soldiers, purely out of a sense of decency, compassion and heroism. When I look upon the Australian flag, then, I am filled with pride and wonder, not only at the place of my birth and home but also, in the way a place has been found for my own unique cultural identity within it.
It is for this reason that Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s recent comments about flag flying are disturbing. Quoth he: "I don't know what the legal position is but frankly the only flag that should be flying is the Australian national flag," He went on to say "everyone has got to put this country, its interests, its values and its people first, and you don't migrate to this country unless you want to join our team," clarifying his position thus: “If people want to be flying other flags — a corporate flag for instance — fine, but the Australian national flag should always be part of it.”
One must of course point out that the Prime Minister’s comments were made in the context of allegations that Australians were flying the flag of the heinous Islamic State here, a flag that has become synonymous with genocide, intolerance and some of the worst depravities ever witnessed this century, committed by beings purporting to be human. The support by small sections of the local community for the Islamic State and its bloody doctrine of intolerance and extreme brutality is of course gravely disquieting. For if Australian citizens not only condone the massacre rape and persecution of innocent people who just happen to be of another religion or ethnicity, but in some isolated cases, travel to the scene of the crime in order to take part, then it is logical to draw the inference that such persons do not share the values of tolerance, democracy and freedom of speech that characterize the Australian way of life.
Yet in the hype and hysteria surrounding the small section of the community that supports ISIS in Australia, comments by the Prime Minister that imply that no other flag but the Australian flag should be flown, and that even corporate flags should be accompanied by the Australian national flag are not helpful and appear to directly oppose everything that multiculturalism is about. For it is but a short step from these comments, abjuring Islamic fundamentalism, to creating suspicion and a climate of disapprobation against all expressions of cultural or ethnic affiliation. One would hate to deduce from the Prime Minister’s remarks that a result of the activities or opinions of a tiny minority, ethnic communities such as the Greek one, which has not only integrated itself harmoniously and without incident within the broader fabric of Australian society, making lasting contributions to it, while simultaneously proudly maintaining its sense of diversity, need to feel wary of ever again making manifest expressions of their culture, lest they be accused of being un-Australian.
The multi-cultural ideal was one where all persons could feel free to maintain and express their ethnic, cultural and religious identity as long as they did not impinge upon anyone else’s rights to do so. Rather than being a threat to “Team Australia,” multiculturalism purported to be of immense benefit to the country, enriching it socially and transforming Australia from a Anglo-Celtic colony to a thriving cosmopolitan modern nation. The fact that the Prime Minister of such a multi-cultural country is made so insecure by the deluded few who support the crimes of the Islamic State, so as to feel the need to issue an opinion which in effect calls for a blanket on the free flying of ALL flags, or at least their buttressing by an Australian flag suggests that multi-culturalism, at least in the way it is seen by the dominant group, is more fragile than previously thought and that, in keeping with the excellent theory of multiculturalism developed by George Vassilacopoulos and Tina Nicolacopoulou in their ground-breaking study: “From Foreigner to Citizen: Greek Migrants and Social Change in White Australia 1897-2000," we are once more, by virtue of some of our co-citizens’ inability to espouse humanitarian ideals, to be branded as foreigners and potentially subversive.
Undoubtedly, this was not the Prime Minister’s intention. Yet his unfortunate comments convey sentiments that have the ability to undermine many integrated communities’ confidence in their own place within Australian society, conveying the suspicion that whatever their contributions to Australia, as ethnic minorities they are answerable and responsible for the actions of other such minorities. Unlike the flag of the Islamic State, which represents not a nation or a people but rather a band of murderers, the ethnic flags of the people who live in Australia form a small component of the broader mosaic of the Australian identity and the control of their display should not even be countenanced, let alone expressed in public. Instead, the requisite inquiries should be made into the reason why the deluded few Australians espouse doctrines of violence, religious repression and brutality in the first place Further, it should be far beyond the Prime Minister ever to seek to equate flag waving by the Greek community with a lack of commitment to ‘Team Australia.’ After all, we built ‘Team Australia,’ sometimes under circumstances of bigotry that we are all too happy to forget.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 30 August 2014